Clickbait Booms

The reason why will SHOCK you

I use Facebook mostly for gathering information – a scroll down my wall gives me selection of stories from newspapers, literary magazines, history sites, etc. This idea first came as I thought it would be very convenient to have someone else provide me with a list of articles covering a range of topics from different sources. But, as all my ‘good’ ideas do, it came with a massive flaw. The clickbait titles started to overtake my wall to the point that my interest in reading almost any Facebook article was close to null.

Journalism and creative writing have one golden rule – you have to attract the reader with the title and the first few sentences. And whether we want to admit that or not, clickbaiting headlines in journalism is just an appropriation of that historical rule to our digital world. However, let’s look at a few examples to see how this technique evolved into something that is slowly starting to make the audience turn away, rather than pull them in.

“14-year-old girl stabbed her little sister 40 times, police say. The reason why will shock you.”

“Trump Turns His Back on His Only Celebrity Supporter; The Reason Why Will Shock You.”

“This man got breast implants – and the reason why will SHOCK you.”

“The reason why will shock you” clickbait is now one of the most used headlines in social media. It is used in relation to the stabbing of a little girl, politics, celebrity updates and simply weird news.

To begin with, appealing to the readership with that same line in relation to all those topics seems rather insensitive to the important articles. Whether the readers are the same for all of the articles, or each article has a different target audience, simply knowing that it is using such a cheap trick for important issues seems to me very disrespectful. In a way, it is the comparative usage that affects how I view the phenomenon.

Secondly, even in cases when the headline grabs my attention, usually the article disappoints. Not because the article is in itself badly written, but because the headline builds up expectations which are then not reached. I am not shocked – I might be surprised, maybe even amazed by the human stupidity (and my own for clicking on the article), but not shocked. And when this happens too often, you simply learn not to click.

On the other hand, any way to gain readership is now welcome. These are mixed times for journalism – access to information is easier than ever before – in most cases, the facts are just a  few google searches away. Furthermore, the information is available to the public at large, and for a lot of things you do not have to be an official journalist to get access. A blog written from your lovely Glasgow room can easily provide as much information as a BBC article. Moreover, we have seen some amazing investigative journalism in the 21st century. Nevertheless, the accessibility of information has also caused big competitions between an even larger number of information providers and thus every online article has a struggle. Writers are paid per 100 clicks on their articles, and printed newspapers’ long-term future is questionable – personally, none of my wider circle of friends buys print editions and as of late, even my father switched to online news. Therefore, in a world where jobs are rare and underpaid, can we really blame people for trying to make the most money out of their article by annoying headlines?  

Clickbaiting has in the past proven to increase online readership, but like all things, its golden era might be coming to an end – in August 2016 Facebook created an algorithm that hides the worst clickbait-articles as people were becoming more and more annoyed. I understand those people and I’m one of them, but at the same time, I try and not to be judgmental about the modern ways of digital journalism. Digital journalism is young and is trying to find the best way to operate. It has its ups and downs, but so do we. It’s normal. And for all of us who love the profession, as writers, readers or both, we should critically observe and suggest improvements, rather than rant about failed experiments and models that are no longer working, because that is the only way we can reach what could truly be the golden age of journalism.

[Žad Novak]

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